Thursday, 26 August 2010

Crazy people crazy views

Interesting post in today's New York Times about how psychology research has been influenced by choice of human subjects and their cultural baggage, in the most part US university undergraduates.

This has been a dirty secret inside psychology for quite some time - for example in my former field, psychophysiology, a lot of the data comes from either relatively non-stressful studies on undergraduates, or US marines - the marines getting in on the act because soldiers can be ordered to do a puzzle solving task while standing stark naked in a commercial meat freezer with a thermocouple up their backsides - that particular experiment was to correlate lowering of body core temperature with problem solving ability - something that might be useful to know if you ever planned to fight a ground war in Siberia.

But these cultural models are a trap - the Evenk, or any other cold weather peoples have probably evolved a set of cultural rules to cope with the problems of cognitive degradation.

The study of human interaction is littered with such misunderstandings - for example one thing that used to puzzle clinical psychologists was the different outcomes when the disturbed and mad are released into the community. In some cultures they do quite well as people feel a family and neighbourhood responsibility for crazy uncle Abdul, and as long as he doesn't do something unacceptable people will look after him, ensure he has something to eat, changes his clothes etc.

In a lot of Anglo cultures crazy uncle Abdul is given a housing commission flat miles away from anyone he knows, a bag of tranquilizers he doesn't take cause he feels funny, and is left to wander the streets where he rapidly becomes a smelly derro, and that happens due to sociological and cultural differences between Morocco and London, or Parma and Seattle. Mediterranean cultures see looking after the mad as a social and family responsibility, Anglo a responsibility of society in general.

Now let's turn to the study of history as sociology or anthropology, ie understanding how these societies worked. In fact let's take the Romans in the first century CE. Because they wrote a lot of material that is culturally significant to our society we tend to view them as if they were Oxford dons with a tendency for toga parties, sexual licentiousness, and violent blood sports. (Blame Robert Graves for this model).

Actually their society wasn't like this at all. Rather than 1930's Oxford it was possibly more like 1980's Egypt or Morocco - women were cloistered but had property an business rights, men were expected to strut their stuff, and there was a lot of decadent behaviours behind closed doors. (I once went to a night club in Konya in Turkey - it made the York version look very very tame, but outside everyone was properly Islamic and frowned on alcohol etc etc, and the peasants in the market would probably have seriously disapproved of what went on in the Star Club).

As such not only do we form an imperfect view of their society due to gaps in the written record, but our interpretation is unconsciously flawed due to our own stereotypes. We deplore gladiatorial contests becuase they are at variance with our view. For much the same reasons we also deplore bullfights. A professor of literature at Malaga university might acknowledge the cruelty, yet enjoy the experience. Who would have the better understanding ?

1 comment:

tenthmedieval said...

Aha! I saw some version of that article elsewhere and then lost the link. It is extremely useful, thankyou for finding it for me!